SciTechTalk: What's in a name? Everything

By JIM ALGAR, United Press International   |   Dec. 30, 2012 at 6:31 AM
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Have you ever sat down for a delicious dish of grilled Patagonian toothfish at your local seafood restaurant? You almost certainly have; you just didn't know it. Which brings us to the point of this article -- it's all about the name.

Keep the toothfish in mind; we'll come back to it.

But first, a bit of Shakespeare, to wit: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

True enough, but "That which we call Rosales Rosaceae ..." doesn't quite have the same ring, although Shakespeare was going for emotion, not scientific accuracy.

Of course, people were calling a rose a rose long before the Swede Carl Linnaeus laid the foundation of modern taxonomy and its binomial nomenclature based on Latin forms.

We're all faintly aware that everything on the Earth that grows, swims, crawls, walk or flies has a scientific name, usually a polysyllabic jawbreaker that we avoid in preference of the "common name" of whatever plant or creature we're looking at.

But whereas a scientific name, once bestowed, is immutable and set, common names need follow no such stricture.

Which brings us back to our Patagonian toothfish, or more properly Dissostichus eleginoides.

Now in the flesh this denizen of cold waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans is no beauty, and the name -- toothfish? -- doesn't ring harmoniously in the ear of diners or sit elegantly on a printed menu, which is why you didn't have toothfish at your local restaurant: You had Chilean sea bass.

Fisheries tried for years to market Patagonian toothfish without success, until some savvy marketer decided a slightly exotic reference to Chile combined with the comfortable familiarity of bass to American consumers might do the trick.

And it did: Patagonian toothfish -- sorry, Chilean sea bass -- became an instant hit and a seafood menu staple.

And that finny delicacy is not the only food product that needed a little marketing help to secure consumer acceptance.

Take an edible berry of the genus Actinidia deliciosa (yes, we're in Linnaeus country again.)

It's the edible fruit of a woody vine native to southern China, the seeds of which were introduced into New Zealand in the early 20th century.

New Zealanders dubbed the fruit Chinese gooseberry and began large-scale growing in an effort to create an export market.

But Chinese gooseberries didn't exactly fly off shelves in the United States, the biggest intended export market -- U.S.-China relations were going through a rough patch -- but again marketing came to the rescue, which is why we now find Kiwifruit as a common occupant of our fruit bowls.

There's even an attempt to use marketing -- or at least a name change -- to deal with the pressing problem of an invasive fish species that threaten to overtake and dominate native wildlife in U.S. rivers and the Great Lakes.

Asian carp, or Ctenopharyngodon idella -- that's the last of Linnaeus, promise -- have resisted efforts to control their spread in these waterways.

Some have suggested they might be brought under control by moving them from our waterways to our dinner plates, courtesy of a name change.

Asian carp might not sparkle as a menu description, they say, so how about Silverfin? Grilled, broiled or pan fried, your choice.

After all, it worked for the toothfish, didn't it?

And a rose is still a rose is still a rose.

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